...[a] captivating biography ... Himes became a writer while incarcerated. Jackson refuses to romanticize Himes’s life or his motivation for becoming an artist. There is no moral redemption in the transformation Himes undergoes while locked away. Rather, Jackson posits that Himes began writing to work through the trauma of a deadly prison fire that amplified the suffering and shame he had felt since childhood ... Many of the details of Himes’s life appear in other books, but Jackson’s research is unimpeachable. The biography is based on a kaleidoscopic mix of archival materials, close readings of Himes’s published writing and personal letters and conversations with people who knew him. Himes had a mercurial personality and led a thrilling life that might tempt a biographer to conjure a book in the spirit of its subject, but Jackson avoids this pitfall. The book is neatly written and accessible, without cheap tricks to build suspense or sway readers’ opinions ... All told, Chester B. Himes is a bracing journey through the life of an uncompromising writer who considered himself 'an evil, highly sensitive, unsuccessful old man — but … not an American Negro in the usual connotation of the word.'
In his vivid, engrossing biography, Lawrence Jackson, a professor at Johns Hopkins, gives us an in-depth portrait of Himes, an African American writer whose 20 published books stirred controversy with their depictions of sexuality, racism and social injustice ...writings were often more sensational than revered — and raised questions as to Himes’s place in modern literary history ... One of Jackson’s most important projects is observing how Himes created autobiographical fictions... Jackson tells the story with remarkable insight and care... Jackson is a fine biographer fully attentive to Himes’s personal history and to his place in literary history. He has indeed written the definitive biography that Himes — who died in 1984 — deserves.
As interesting as Jackson's account of Himes' later life is — including his eventual self exile in Paris, a deep friendship with Malcolm X and the turn to writing the detective novels that would bring him fame and financial success — it's the long section of this biography about Himes' prison years that's most absorbing ... Himes, like the literature he created, was difficult and sometimes cruel; but Jackson insists he's worth the trouble. At the end of this biography, Jackson memorably characterizes Himes' great gifts as a writer, describing 'his spirited realism from the bottom that defied fear and always cut hard enough to draw blood.' That sentence, and many more like it, make me intrigued enough to want to read Himes' work beyond the detective novels I already know.